Synthesis of knowledge about participatory modeling: How a group’s perceptions changed over time

By Rebecca Jordan

Rebecca Jordan (biography)

How do a group’s perceptions change over time, when members across a range of institutions are brought together at regular intervals to synthesize ideas? Synthesis centers have been established to catalyze more effective cross-disciplinary research on complex problems, as described in the blog post ‘Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure‘, by Andrew Campbell.

I co-led a group synthesizing ideas about participatory modeling as one of the activities at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). We met in Annapolis, Maryland, USA, four times over three years for 3-4 days per meeting. Our task was to synthesize what is known about participatory modeling tools, processes, and outcomes, especially in environmental and natural resources management contexts.

The group defined participatory modeling as a “purposeful learning process for action that engages the implicit and explicit knowledge of stakeholders to create formalized and shared representation(s) of reality” ( In its idealized form, participatory modeling involves stakeholders in co-formulating the problem and the solution or decision-making outcomes. In some cases, stakeholders also co-generate – with expert modelers – the shared representation or model.

Here, I discuss two representations generated, respectively, at the first and last meetings and shown in the figures below. These representations are the result of combining models generated by the participatory modeling experts present at each meeting. Individuals were given the following prompt: “create a model using pen and paper that reflects the participatory modeling process”. The sheets of paper were then collected and aggregated, following which I created a digitized version.

Representation generated at the first meeting by the participatory modeling group (source: Rebecca Jordan)

Representation generated at the last (fourth) meeting by the participatory modelling group (source: Rebecca Jordan)

Comparing the figures generated at the first and last meetings, it can be seen that both feature models, cycles, multiple scales, inclusion, and exclusion of participants.

But there are four major differences. Compared to the last meeting figure, the first meeting figure:

  1. is process oriented, organized as steps,
  2. features explicit theories,
  3. lacks realistic pictures including people, and
  4. lacks explicit mention of researchers.

My impression is that these differences also framed the changes in group discussion during the meeting processes.

One change was that the participatory modeling experts became more comfortable with each other allowing for a more creative flow of ideas and a more comfortable discourse. They also became more familiar with the ideas being represented in the different disciplines and could talk more freely about these ideas.

If we take the two representations as indicative of the change in the way that participants viewed the participatory modeling process, then I suggest that the group became somewhat humbled by the limitations in the research about (and the institutions that house) participatory processes in general. Not only did we read about, and discuss at length, the processes and tools within multiple cases, but we also confronted the socio-economic and political challenges that people across the globe face. In addition, we recognized the complex layers of uncertainty embedded within natural and social systems. The figure from the final meeting depicts a more reflective and personalized perspective on the participatory process that encompasses a much greater scale.

What stood out to me was the increased appreciation for the multiple layers of the processes by which people gather information and learn. While the group began with discussions about the inherent complexity in governance processes and the extent of varying stakeholder needs, the group ended the series of meetings with greater recognition of neurology, cognition, identity, culture, and the researcher biases that are all part of participatory engagement.

While these are personal reflections, I am interested in what you see in the change across the two figures. For me, better capturing the complexity that arose in our discussions has great potential to improve participatory modeling and the research that uses it. What do you think?

Biography: Rebecca Jordan is Professor and Department Chair of Community Sustainability in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, Michigan, USA. She devotes most of her research effort to investigating public learning of science through citizen science and participatory modeling. She was a co-Principal Investigator of the Participatory Modelling pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post resulted from the Participatory Modeling pursuit which was part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

9 thoughts on “Synthesis of knowledge about participatory modeling: How a group’s perceptions changed over time”

  1. For me, the second representation is a little discomforting. The first provides structure and helps make sense of the situation. As you point out, the second highlights complexity, and seems to call into question the impact of any single participatory modeling project.

    I agree that this broadened scope might have “*potential* to improve participatory modeling”, but at the moment it seems like the participatory modelers’ sense-making has become more difficult rather than easier?

    Do you agree, and what do you think could be done to help make sense of the complexity, and translate that potential into practical recommendations for improvement?

    • Hi Joseph! I believe it is inevitable that when you bring experts together, there will be a tendency to focus on what is not known and where complexity exists. One may find the opposite to be true when working with public audiences where attempts to reduce complexity are constantly being made. I also believe, however, that it is in the reworking of complexity that can bring about creativity. The latter being essential for novel problem solutions. So in a sense the first model is one where current ideas are shared, but in the second, a more creative space is presented where both frustrations and novelty exist. Personally, I would love to bring the group together again to determine if the novelty of ideas translated into change in research practice and has this increased sense-making.

      • Interesting observation. It sounds like you’re saying that advances in research practice happen at an individual level outside the synthesis process, rather than within a group consensus/agreement process. The synthesis itself is therefore ephemeral and only a means to an end, rather than being a lasting outcome itself?
        That rings true to me, and seems like a key difference between synthesis of research practice directly vs synthesis of a research topic. The website is a nice example that within a single process synthesis of research practice can occur both directly/individually and as a topic.

        • Yes, to a certain extent, I am saying that the process is individual but that this is always balanced by group interactions and in rare, but exciting occasions, group synthesis (that could not have been achieved by any member individually). What I think is quite ephemeral, however, is synthesis. In many ways, the latter is a means to an end for me. Thanks!

      • Thanks Rebecca!
        We’ve made good progress in a number of fields (overview here, plenty more available on request): – some progress in interdisciplinary studies, and some work with clients here:
        Generally, our we aim to show scholars and practitioners that they can reach their goals or solve their problems more effectively when their theories/models/plans are more systemic. Generally, our organizational plans and national policies seem to succeed at reaching their goals less than 20% of the time. I think we can double that rate of success!


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